Have you experienced a conversion? It’s an old religious concept, but not limited to religion. I converted from Republican to Democrat in the late 1960s, but converting isn’t the same as experiencing a full conversion.
Converting is changing your mind. A conversion is a change of heart. Changing your mind can be temporary. A change of heart is usually permanent.
Have you experienced a change of heart about race and racism?
My change of heart was a long time coming. Decades of education, consciousness-raising, relationship-building, increasing my comfort level. Preparing the ground, planting seeds. But they didn’t germinate until after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and the ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter movement, developments that made me realize how far I still had to go on this issue. It took a while, but I came to accept the truth of white privilege; white fragility; unconscious bias; micro-aggressions; structural, institutional or systemic racism (take your pick); and white supremacy.
I started uncovering my own biases. It was hard to admit that these lurked inside, along with uncomfortable memories of disrespecting people of color — and not very subtly — memories that actually made me lose sleep. How could I have done such things? But I was past the point of denial.
This is not about guilt or shame, but about clearly seeing our place in a culture founded on inequality, understanding the really raw deal our dominant white culture has imposed on people of color — African Americans in particular. In spite of all the “progress” this country has made, and there has been progress, not much has fundamentally changed. Not nearly enough.
From what I’ve seen in the protests following George Floyd’s murder, a lot of other white Americans are experiencing a similar conversion. That’s because we finally felt this one. We felt the knee to the neck. We watched as a murderous cop continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck for a full three minutes after his pulse stopped. We felt the raw, unconscionable injustice of this one act after so many similar acts. We felt just a little of the rage that Black Americans have been feeling for far too long. It finally moved from our head to our hearts.
How could anyone watch that knee to the neck and not experience some kind of conversion?
Isabel Wilkerson, a former Oak Parker who wrote The Warmth of Other Suns a landmark book about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North, said this much better, back in 2017 during an On Being interview:
“What is happening in these cases after the person is down? Where is that basic human response to a person in distress? Where is the threat, once they are already near death? The basic human response to take the hand of someone whose life is slipping away from them and to comfort them: That is the essential missing piece, which is empathy — and recognition of the common humanity of another person. We can disagree on the circumstances and the details and the so-called facts of the situation, but after the person is down, where is the humanity? I think it calls upon all of us to recognize the need for radical empathy.”
Too many white people still resist the notion of “systemic racism.” Racism is not just limited to “a few bad apples.” It’s baked into the entire system, a system founded on radical inequality. Wilkerson, whose On Being interview was rebroadcast last Sunday, calls it “a caste system, the artificial hierarchy that was put in place before our great-great-great-grandparents were alive. It’s something that we’ve inherited. It’s not something that we wanted. If you’re on the beneficiary end of it, you didn’t ask to be on the beneficiary end. If you’re on the targeted end of it, you certainly didn’t ask to be on that end. But this is where we are. And I think that it’s calling upon us to reckon with this finally. There’s no point in pointing fingers about it, but recognizing it is the first step toward dismantling it.”
Passing legislation, unfortunately, has limited impact.
“Laws are necessary,” Wilkerson said, “but they’re not sufficient if hearts have not changed. I view myself as on a mission to change the country, the world, one heart at a time. And it’s a tough thing to do. I feel as if the heart is the last frontier because we have tried so many other things. The laws we’ve passed, that we thought were written in granite, we see can be erased and are in peril if, as a collective, we do not recognize why.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many white Americans have experienced a conversion, but many have not. White Americans need to recognize our common humanity with people of color, especially Black Americans, and not just recognize it in our heads but feel it in our hearts.
Because the heart is the last frontier.